Local Politics: The car is still king in Columbus

Rob Moore

Have you ever been pulled over by police while walking? I have. Twice. This happened to me in the same neighborhood: Minerva Park. And both times in the past couple of months.

Minerva Park is a suburban enclave in northeast Columbus, nestled between Easton and Westerville. Because Minerva Park is its own municipality, the village has its own police force, separate from Columbus as a whole.

The Minerva Park Police Department has a policy of stopping people who walk in their jurisdiction after certain hours and questioning them for not being in a car. Police officers say that this is a policy in place to catch burglars, which would possibly be effective if burglars never used cars.

This is just one of the ways that Central Ohio stacks the deck against people trying to walk, bike and bus in the Columbus metro area. Nine in 10 commutes in Columbus happen via car. Columbus is so car-centric that neighborhoods like Minerva Park find walking to be probable cause for criminal activity.

Pedestrians are not the only people who have to deal with harassment for their choice of transportation. While biking in January, I was honked at by aggressive drivers not once but twice on one ride from campus to Downtown. One driver yelled, “Use the sidewalks!” (which would be, in fact, illegal) on a road that was marked as a shared bike/car road. Another laid down the horn on me as they tried to merge through a bike lane on Third Street onto 670.

Unfortunately, there are no easy public policy answers to this cultural bias against people who use their feet and/or bicycles to get around. Columbus has done a commendable job of making roads more bike friendly and life easier for pedestrians; the Third and Summit street bike lanes are pretty fantastic, and pedestrian right-of-way crosswalks have proliferated in the city in recent years. COTA has significantly improved the rider experience with ridership-based routes. Despite these improvements, Columbus is still a hard place to do anything but drive.

Finding ways to discourage driving is a piece of the solution. The new Short North parking changes are bound to encourage more biking, walking, busing and ridesharing in the area, which will hopefully help normalize use of alternative transportation. Congestion-reducing streetscaping and creative use of fees can also help.

But overall, the politics of transportation will not be settled in the halls of the City Council. People on bikes, buses, walking and driving will need to learn to respect each other and share space as the city becomes more dense and driving inevitably becomes less prevalent. Until then, please think twice before hitting the horn when you see a bicyclist on the road.

Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a Columbus-based policy analysis firm.